In the early 1900s, the Lower East Side was dominated by two types of businesses: garment makers and pushcart salesmen. Back then the area was still an ethnic enclave, home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from eastern and central Europe.
One of those immigrants was named Isidor Guss. He arrived in New York from Poland in 1910 and settled in the Lower East Side's "pickle district," where he opened Guss' Pickles stand. The successful stand eventually moved to a Hester Street storefront, where Guss nurtured a loyal following that chose his shop over the 80 some-odd pickles carts and stores nearby.
Fast forward about 70 years and the neighborhood looks a little different. New immigration laws and rising Manhattan rents helped push most of the Lower East Side's immigrant population out of the area, and many of the shops the residents frequented were forced to close. Guss' stuck it out, but came under the ownership of the Baker family, which ran the store until 2004, when Tim Baker moved out of state to care for an ailing relative.
At the time of Guss' closing, a young man named Roger Janin was working at the store. When he discovered it was for sale, he relayed the news to his mother, Patricia Fairhurst, who took over the lease. (Note: the Guss' Pickles brand still operates, under different ownership, in New Jersey as a wholesaler.)
But by then the area was no longer hospitable to a pickle shop, Fairhurst said.
"The block was turning into a strip of restaurants and bars," she said of the pickle store's Orchard Street location (the store moved in 2001). "The garment stores were all closing, our customers were disappearing. We weren't making money anymore."
On the recommendation of a customer, she and her son moved the store to a Borough Park, Brooklyn location in 2009. But after a year they decided that wasn't right, either. So Fairhurst and her son decided to come home to the Clinton Hill/Bedford-Stuyvesant area where she grew up.
"I've lived in this neighborhood, on and off, since I was a youngster." Fairhurst and Janin opened their new store on the corner of Classon and Dekalb Avenues in December 2011. Fairhurst said the pickle shop was immediately embraced by the locals.
"There's a police precinct just down the street, and the policemen love our pickles," she noted. Pratt's nearby campus is a boon to business as well.
"We carry kimchi now on the recommendation of one of our customers," she said. "We make it vegan-style—no fish sauce—because that's what the Pratt students asked for."
Clinton Hill Pickles occupies a simple utilitarian storefront that meshes with the store's no-nonsense product. Huge red barrels of naturally-fermented cucumber pickles (no vinegar, just salt brine), mixed vegetables, and newer items such as mayo-free coleslaw stand guard, and customers can peek inside before selecting a half-pint, pint, or quart of pickles, which Fairhurst packs by hand. She makes change from her pocket—no cash register here—and offers samples freely when a customer can't decide between a full-sour (brined for two and a half to three months) and a half-sour (brined for about a week). It's an old-world style for an old-world product.
Clinton Hill Pickles
431 Dekalb Avenue at Classon Avenue (entrance on Classon), Brooklyn, NY 11205 (map) 917-701-4000